Discovering Bikepacking in Ontario’s Algoma Country
Please pass it along...
A newcomer to bikepacking, Martin Lortz joined a group of friends for a three-day mystery ride in Northern Ontario’s Algoma Country this fall. In this piece, he shares the story of pushing through his longest day in the saddle to date and getting to know bikepacking the hard way while soaking in the serene Canadian countryside…
Words and photos by Martin Lortz (@lortzphoto)
Here’s the plan: three days, 300 kilometres give or take, destination unknown. It sure sounds like something worthy of a seven-hour drive and an early morning meetup. Allow me to explain.
Every September, one of my friends at Red Pine Tours plans a cycling adventure, providing his mates with the date, destination, first-day mileage, and appropriate ride of choice. Being a new owner of a gravel bike and lucky enough to be on the mate list, I was extended an invitation to partake in this year’s exploit. So, here I am on a September morning in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, ready to set off on what I know will be the longest day on a bike of my cycling life and not much else beyond that.
Still under the restrictions of the new COVID normal, the usual morning city buzz is disappointingly absent. We forgo the coffee and breakfast that would typically accompany the start of an adventure and push off along the Sault Ste. Marie waterfront. Park paths, bike lanes, and a mix of excitement and tedium occupy the first hour as we spin through the familiar. With one turn, it all changes. Pavement becomes gravel and smiles stretch across faces; here we go, let the fun begin.
Located at the eastern end of Lake Superior, Sault Ste. Marie is well on its way to becoming the adventure town of choice in Ontario, and cycling is a big part of the plan. With investment in the city cycling infrastructure, new mountain bike trails, and beyond city limits, bikepacking, the future looks bright. As it turns out, there is more to our adventure plan than good times; if all goes well, the result will be a new and official three-day bikepacking route.
A quick look at a map and it’s easy to see why this area of Ontario, known as Algoma, has so much bikepacking potential. Containing the rugged landscape of the north shore of Lake Huron and Superior and an abundance of gravel and logging roads, the opportunities to explore are endless. And explore, we will. My cycling companions are local cycling experts and the perfect crew for the job. For me, it’s enough to take a few photos and try to keep up.
The need-to-know approach to the days ahead has me a bit nervous. As mentioned, the whole gravel / bikepacking thing is relatively new to me. While a mountain bike has been part of my life for decades, it wasn’t till the promise of a drop-bar bike that can ride any surface that I considered the genre. That said, the acquisition of my steel Norco Search gravel bike has transformed my cycling for the better. My annual time in the saddle time has easily quadrupled, and while I do have one overnighter under my belt, this adventure is sure to push my limits.
As it turns out, there is energy in company, and the kilometres tick off at an impressive pace. Pavement fades to gravel that goes on for hours. We roll past farmlands and into the forest, past lakes and rushing rivers. Lunch takes longer than it should; seriously, this is too easy. At this rate, we will be relaxing at our campsite with plenty of time to enjoy the sunset.
All is still on track as we roll into late afternoon. From here, our campsite is a couple of hours away as the crow flies. Unfortunately, fly we can not, and between us and our destination is a river that, try as we might, can’t be crossed. Time for plan B. While plan B will get us there, with daylight still on our side, we opt to divert to a more adventurous plan C. Plan C involves a hiking trail, which I quote, “Looked doable on Google Maps.”
Plan C starts with a hike-a-bike through a quagmire of mud. Hmmm. Once rolling again, spirits rise but not for long as the hiking trail becomes just that, and a tough one at that. We push, pull, and curse our fully loaded bikes up and down steep slippery slopes over rocks and fallen trees for the next two hours as the golden glimpses of the setting sun fade to dark. We pop out onto the highway in the dark, lights on, and a cloud of breath condensed by the cold night air.
We turn our attention to the community of Iron Bridge a couple of kilometres up the road. All we can hope for at this time of day, I mean night, is an open gas station. The sign in the window says, open; a tug on the door says not. Luckily, the station across the road welcomes us as its last customers of the day. We energize with coffee and sugar and push off into the night. One hour later, 140 kilometres and 12 hours into our day, finally at our campsite, we celebrate with a round of beers and cheers to a good day. We crawl into our sleeping bags and take in the star show above as sleep comes easy, and the morning comes fast.
Day two begins with the reward for the first day’s effort with a spectacular sunrise on the distant horizon, observed from a cliff-top campsite, high above our temporary front-yard of treetops splattered with fall colours.
Faces emerge from frost-covered bivvies. The scent of fresh coffee follows the roar of camping stoves. Seriously, backcountry mornings can’t possibly get any better. We linger as long as possible, pack slowly and eventually roll down a billion-year-old path of granite that we hiked a bike up just 11 hours ago. Back on the pavement, the downhill momentum continues into the chill of a September morning in Northern Ontario.
A negative of a sparsely populated landscape is that resupplying can be a challenge. One hour into the day, we arrive at Tunnel Lake Trading Post, a middle-of-nowhere opportunity to pick up anything from sliced bread, a pair of socks, or some fishing lures. We refuel with gas station coffee and microwaved sandwiches, then stuff sweets and beers into our bags. For the rest of the day, the surface beneath our wheels is primarily gravel, rock, and sand. Unfortunately, the rain in the forecast arrived right on schedule, but while the forecast called for a short shower, the rain opted to stay for the rest of the day.
Wet and chilled, the fork in the road at the end of the day came with options. Down the road to the right is our planned campsite, sure to be wet and cold. An equal distance to the left is a wood stove in a dry cabin belonging to the family of the guy standing next to me. The decision seemed easy but took longer than it should as we struggled with the choice to alter the official plan.
The woodstove roars to life, and the cottage quickly fills with the scent of sweat and rain-soaked gear drying by the fire. We spend the evening doing what friends do in a cabin in the woods on a rainy night. Fueled by bourbon, tales of past misadventures are rewarded with laughter.
Day three begins much like day two with a high-speed descent into a pasture-filled valley bordered by bare rock walls and colourful trees clinging to steep slopes as low-hanging morning mist can still be seen floating in the distance. The road goes from gravel to dirt and deteriorates from there until we find ourselves bouncing off rocks on more of a riverbed than a trail.
“Hey, it looked doable on Google Maps” memories of day one struggles return as we find ourselves knee-deep in water and mud; our only option for forward progress is to tiptoe over a sketchy beaver dam into a wall of a forest not meant for bikes. At this point, all we can do is laugh as we bushwack, following a thin line on a GPS, which we hope knows more than we do. The thick bush slowly thins. Beneath our feet, faintly visible wheel ruts in the grass and a rotting RV in the trees welcomes us back to civilization.
Out of the woods and back on what resembles a road, the struggle continues. Yesterday’s rain has turned the next two or three kilometres of clay road into peanut butter, instantly clogging all moving parts to a stop. We push, slip and fall, and pick at the mud with sticks only to be stuck again a couple of wheel revolutions later. Our slow progress leaves us at the mercy of local dogs with aggressive attitudes that luckily are more show than substance.
Slowly, the ground firms, wheels start rolling, and gears shift with a crunch as the forward momentum sprays a shower of mud behind us. All is good again, the sun is shining, and smiles are back. Ahead of us is about 40 kilometres of country roads, bike lanes, and park paths. And just like that, it’s over; we celebrate with the clink of beer-filled glasses and more food than anybody should consume in one sitting.
As routes go, this will be a good one. As I’m sure happens with all first attempts, a few tweaks are required. On a personal note, the experience went well beyond a good time with friends, although there was plenty of that. From shivering cold to soaked with sweat, sun to rain and back, physical doubts and mental struggles, and of course plenty of jubilation, all attributes I believe highly required for a successful adventure. And the variety of terrain, so good.
To answer two commonly asked questions on the interweb:
Would you recommend this product to a friend? Absolutely.
Would you buy again? 100%.
About Martin Lortz
Martin Lortz is a Toronto-based freelance photographer/writer specializing in outdoor adventure. These days, spends most of his time showcasing outdoor adventure opportunities in his home province of Ontario and beyond. Long time mountain biker and recent gravel/bikepacking convert, cycling for interest and work are happily becoming a more significant part of life. Find more of his work on at LortzPhoto.com and on Instagram @lortzphoto.